Buncombe Commishioners: Back to the barricades

  • Board approves $3.1 million Pack Library renovation
  • Commissioners expand county smoking ban
  • County transfers Health Center operations to nonprofit

It was a hot-button meeting for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. After a monthlong hiatus, the board reconvened Aug. 4 to confront a room packed with anti-zoning protesters and an agenda that included a proposed smoking ban, conservation easements and an extensive renovation of Pack Library.

It all made for a long and sometimes contentious session. The anti-zoning advocates spoke at several points, opposing the approval of zoning maps for Limestone Township (which the commissioners nonetheless unanimously approved) and calling for a referendum on zoning.

Head to head: A zoning opponent sports a "Let Us Vote" sticker calling for a referendum on reinstating countywide zoning. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The commissioners enacted countywide zoning in 2007, but in March of this year, the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned the zoning laws, ruling that there hadn't been sufficient public notice before they were approved.

In the aftermath, the board approved a moratorium on certain "undesirable" land uses while it went back to the drawing board to reinstate zoning.

Zoned out

But anti-zoning activists, perceiving an opening, turned out in force, filling the room and making sure their voices were heard. And while many said they personally oppose zoning, they also maintained that it's undemocratic to take such a step without a plebiscite.

"There needs to be a vote," declared Jesse Ledbetter, a former county commissioner and state senator. "Anything this big needs to be decided by the people affected by it, not by a small group of bureaucrats."

During a discussion of Limestone's zoning map, Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny said, "You're controlling someone else's property, and that's just wrong — it's not what a government should do."

Jupiter resident Don Yelton cited Weaverville as an example of the negative impacts of zoning, noting that it limits individuals' ability to run businesses out of their houses. "Looking at the economy today, we should be doing everything we can to encourage home businesses," he argued.

Alan Ditmore, who lives in Leicester, asserted that zoning causes housing prices to rise, thus contributing to sprawl and unsustainable development. "More people will live further out, and that will mean more roads, more asphalt, more pollution," he said, speaking against approving the Limestone zoning map. "If the housing supply is limited, people are going to be busting their butts to pay their rent or mortgage."

The county held a nonbinding zoning referendum in 1999. Turnout was low, but the vote went against zoning. Decades earlier, Limestone residents had proposed their own local zoning, which was approved by the commissioners.

And while the commissioners declined to comment on the many criticisms that came their way, County Attorney Joe Connolly said the board couldn't authorize a binding referendum if it wanted to.

"We're not California: The state doesn't usually allow referendums on these matters at the county's discretion," he noted. "We don't have the power to do it … under state law. We would have to request — and get passed — a special act from the General Assembly."

That was the procedure that produced the 1999 referendum.


On another front, the board approved a $3.1 million renovation of downtown Asheville's Pack Memorial Library.

"The library is 31 years old, and this will put about another 21 years of life on it," Ed Sheary, director of the Buncombe County Public Libraries, told the commissioners. "We're going to go through floor by floor, taking it down to the concrete."

The library's location in the middle of downtown makes access for construction crews and equipment more difficult, so it will have to be shut down for nine to 10 months and operate at reduced capacity throughout the rest of the renovations, which are expected to take about a year-and-a-half all told. The improvements will include freely accessible public restrooms, safer storage for old documents and an expanded children's area.

But state law, noted Connolly, requires the board to accept the "lowest reasonable bid." And in this case, the Charlotte-based Gleeson Snyder construction company narrowly beat out Goforth Builders and Perry Bartsch Jr. Construction Co., both based in Asheville.

Most of the commissioners voiced regret at handing a large contract to an out-of-town firm during a recession, but Chairman David Gantt observed, "This is the law, and we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money."

Yelton, asserting that "The most expensive thing to do is remodeling," asked the commissioners to instead consider selling the property and building a new library downtown, perhaps at lower cost and using a local company.

But Sheary said the library had extensively explored that possibility and had concluded that it would be much more expensive — about $12 million — to build a new facility.

"We're on some prime real estate," he pointed out, and acquiring a comparable location today could prove costly.

Vice Chair Bill Stanley remained unhappy about giving the contract to an out-of-town company, dismissing Connolly's concern that if Gleeson Snyder didn't get the bid, it could sue the county for lost profits.

"They're telling us that we'll get sued — well, we get sued all the time," said Stanley, adding, "Tell them to get in line." He also took issue with the fact that the company is actually a division of a larger firm based in the Midwest, saying, "Remember, they're from Michigan: They're Yankees."

Over Stanley's objections, the contract was approved on a 4-1 vote.

Smoke 'em if ya got 'em

The commissioners also unanimously approved a ban on smoking in all county-owned properties, facilities and vehicles. Smoking was already prohibited in all county buildings, but new state legislation gives counties the power to set more severe restrictions if they desire.

"There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke," noted Health Director Gibbie Harris. "This isn't about the people who smoke — it's about protecting those who don't." The county, she added, has programs that can help county employees who are smokers kick the habit.

Commissioner Carol Peterson endorsed the move. "As always, Buncombe goes one step further," she observed. "This is a step in the right direction on the public-health front. Most of our employees don't smoke, and this helps protect their rights."

Some members of the public, however, took issue with the ban, calling it an unnecessary constraint on personal freedom, especially in open spaces such as parks.

"I don't smoke, but I have a friend that does," said Gorny. "I can see banning it inside and around doorways, but what if he wants to go out to the lake, fish and have a cigarette? He's not harming anyone then, and that's a real infringement on his rights."

On the other hand, Colleen Daley of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids applauded the board's move. "My sister has asthma," the local high-school student explained. "She once caught a whiff of smoke and by the time she got home, had a severe asthma attack. Secondhand smoke is a killer."

Responding to Gorny, she added, "Maybe nonsmokers in those parks don't want to be exposed."

Gantt, meanwhile, asserted, "This isn't about individuals: It's about the community."

In any case, the ban will take effect Jan. 2, 2010 — the same day another recently passed state law will prohibit smoking inside restaurants and bars.

Other business

• The board unanimously authorized a contract transferring operation and maintenance of the county Health Center to Western North Carolina Community Health Services, including permission to renovate the property (at its own expense) to improve the clinic. If the nonprofit fulfills the county's performance goals, it will have the option of negotiating to purchase the facility at a later date.

The federally approved health clinic receives better reimbursement from the government, enabling it to provide lower-cost medical care than the county can. The move came at the urging of county staff.
• The commissioners also approved two conservation easements, protecting the areas from future development in perpetuity. A 40-acre easement in Sandy Mush will cost the county $18,000 in closing costs, as the owners have decided to donate the property outright. A 170-acre easement in Fairview, part of the Spicer family's ancestral land, will cost the county $365,000.
• During the public-comment portion of the meeting, the board heard from critics and supporters of the current management of local public-access channel URTV.

Ousted URTV board member Richard Bernier asserted that the management has not been transparent and has tried to silence critics raising legitimate issues. "They have failed," declared Bernier, urging the county to withhold funds collected from cable franchise fees until the issues are addressed. "I'm not here to call on [URTV Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse] to resign. I'm just calling out there's violations."

But URTV producer M. Nelson Staley said that, from his perspective, things are going well.

"I have been a member since September 2008, and I've never had any problems," he reported. "I have no problem with the management, no problem with Pat Garlinghouse. It's been overall a very positive experience."


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